By: Matt Owen
A basic introduction of how the conjugate sequence system mode of training operates in the context of sprinting.
When training athletes at a high level with a long training history, the need for complexity arises. Doing randomized conditioning workouts mixed with a few strength days here and there will not get the job done when the athlete has a specific goal in mind for a specific sport. Too many gyms and training systems use a method similar to the concurrent system in order to train various aspects of fitness in parallel and diminished performance occurs as a result. For example, a concurrent system would train strength, power, power endurance, and endurance in the same period or cycle and produce a fitness that is balanced and multi-faceted. Using a system like this will work for a short amount of time and produce good results with low level athletes because everything works for awhile until adaptation occurs. It has been noted and researched that a system like the concurrent method will produce average results in high level athletes due to their long training history and need for a more powerful stimulation.*
The Conjugate Sequence System is fairly straight forward and is built on a few simple principles; one of those being that each macrocycle (year of training) builds on the previous one (no training exists in a vacuum). Second, the training itself is divided into mesocycles or blocks ranging from 4-6 weeks or even 12 weeks. Third, in order to impose enough stress to elicit an adaptation, each mesocycle must have a specific focus while factoring in enough days to help maintain residual fringe characteristics of fitness needed for the task at hand. Lastly, the training will culminate with a phase that is dedicated to sports specificity with training in the gym simply supporting the fitness characteristics needed to be successful in competition. This phase will continue as long as the athlete is in competition. For example, if the athlete is a sprinter, then becoming fast on the track becomes the main focus. Getting strong in the gym, physical appearance to appease the opposite sex, and all other distractions should be set aside because the sport at hand is the focus. The training in the gym simply supports the success of the athlete. Many athletes will fall into this abyss, and it will ruin their chances of success in sport.
For many years, I was a sprinter on the track. So for the sake of experience, we will use sprinting as the sport of choice for this article and scenario. During the pre-season of training, the athlete must spend some time building a solid foundation of fitness and doing general development work. This includes training all aspects of fitness, except genuine ultra-endurance, obviously. In the case of a collegiate sprinter the first mesocycle, which includes 12 weeks of training, should incorporate a balance between strength, power, power endurance, and endurance. This ensures all the energy systems (aerobic-oxidative, high energy phosphagens: ATP-PCr, anaerobic glycolysis, and mixed anaerobic: PCr & anaerobic glycolysis together) are trained in the same period or mesocycle. This period is dedicated to variety, developing general fitness, and injury proofing the athlete for the long competitive season.
After the period of general foundation work is complete, the next phase is dedicated to developing strength both on the track and in the gym. From a track perspective, strength can be developed by training both the anaerobic glycolysis and ATP-PCr energy systems. This is accomplished by utilizing hard and fast reps on the track ranging from 200m-400m in distance. Different coaches have different styles of training (some swear by fartlek style training while others increase track specific strength and conditioning through the use of intervals and repeats), but the concept is the same across the board: increase the athlete’s strength on the track. In the gym, relative strength is king. Because all athletes are unique and have various strengths and weaknesses, there is no one protocol or one size fits all program that works well for everyone. However, the use of the barbell squat, deadlift, power clean, front squat, and other compound movements are the key to developing functional strength in the gym for sprinting. Keeping the overall workload volume low and the intensity high is key to developing relative strength in the gym (IE. 5×3 @ 80% of 1RM, 6×2 @ 85% of 1RM, 4×1 @ 90% of 1RM). This mesocycle can last anywhere from 4-6 weeks depending on the needs of the athlete.
After a general foundation and strength phase, it is necessary to increase the overall speed of the athlete with a “power” phase. Yes, I am referring to the ATP-PCr energy system. During this phase, the goal is to increase the rate at which creatine phosphate is replenished as an energy source between efforts and increase the rate of force production on the track and in the gym. In order to accomplish this on the track, short, fast sprints should be executed each week while respecting the recovery of the athlete’s nervous system. As mentioned earlier, each sprinting coach has their own bag of tricks to speed up athletes. There are many methods but the principle is the same: increase the rate of force production, adaptation of the nervous system, and the utilization of the body’s ATP-PCr system in an all out sprint. In the gym, the goal remains the same as on the track: speed up the athlete. There are also many methods of training available in the gym. Chains, bands, Complex Method, and Litvinov Conversion** type methods are all good ways to help the athlete generate more power.
The final mesocycle before competition should focus on speed endurance which is a mix between the PCr and anaerobic glycolysis systems. For 55m, 60m, and 100m dash sprinters, their event is dominated by the ATP-PCr system, and anaerobic glycolysis rarely comes into play. For athletes such as 200m and 400m sprinters, this is an essential phase before the competition period. Track work should be anaerobically dominant and should focus on fatigue resistance during each repetition. Gym work should support the track work with an emphasis on accelerating maximally through movements for a given number of repetitions with full recovery between sets. The volume of training should also be decreased during this mesocycle to allow for a more complete recovery before competition.
As mentioned earlier in the article, the next mesocycle includes the competitive period where performance on the track should be of the utmost importance. Any work done in the gym should be directed towards maintaining strength and power levels while most of the work is done on the track perfecting technique. The volume of work done in the gym should be drastically decreased. An important aspect of using the conjugate sequence system is understanding the concept of the delayed training effect. Simply put, gains made during the previous mesocycles of training will not be apparent until after a latency period of 1-3 weeks or until the body is adequately restored.* So patience is key. The competitive period of training may be maintained throughout the entire season of competition.
The basics of the conjugate sequence system are simple: each mesocycle has a direct focus and builds on the previous mesocycle. The culminating effects of these cycles are realized during a period of competition after restoration has been achieved. The athlete will then be able to compete at a higher level after adaptation has occurred.
*Verkhoshansky, Y, & Siff, M. (2009). Supertraining sixth edition-expanded version. USA: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
**It should be noted that Litvinov Conversions will only be maximally effective after the athlete has developed a requisite level of strength in terms of jumping, squatting, jumps with kettlebells, and depth jumps. The Litvinov Conversion was developed by Soviet weight thrower, Sergei Litvinov and were only first used after he had been throwing for many years.